A controversial winery project in Yountville won narrow approval from county planners on Wednesday after a contentious public hearing and some public wavering by a key planning commission member.
The hearing on the 100,000-gallon winery project proposed to be built on Yountville Hill unfolded much like a heavyweight boxing match — proponents trading arguments with the developers, but neither side scoring a decisive knockout.
That initially left the commissioners split at the end of a marathon five-hour meeting before an overflow crowd, with Commissioners Matt Pope and Terry Scott saying they opposed the project because its production was too great and its marketing plan too aggressive for a 10.9-acre parcel off of Highway 29 and south of Yount Mill Road.
Commissioners Bob Fiddaman and Mike Basayne said they were in favor, and Commissioner Heather Phillips recused herself due to a conflict of interest, leaving a two-two deadlock and spelling defeat for the winery. Before the commission could vote formally, however, Eric Sklar, developer of the proposed Yountville Hill Winery, asked for a two-week delay to possibly revise the project and win over votes.
After a brief recess to discuss the delay, the commissioners returned and Pope said he would change his vote. By a 3-1 margin, with Scott opposed, the commission voted to approve the project’s use permit to the stunned silence of the roughly 50 people left in attendance, almost all of them opposing the winery.
Pope prefaced his initial comments opposing Yountville Hill by saying he was deeply torn about the project, believing some of the vintners who wrote letters opposing it were saying “I got mine, now too bad for you.” He also believed that by making it difficult and prohibitively expensive for winery developers, the county was narrowing the pool of new winery owners to large corporations with the deep pockets to navigate the process.
Still, he said he was swayed by the arguments that Yountville Hill could be a precedent-setting decision for Napa Valley, in essence giving a green light for developers to pursue large-production projects that need ample tasting room traffic, nestled into narrow parcels in the hillsides.
Pope said comments from commission Chairman Bob Fiddaman ultimately changed his mind, as Fiddaman argued that the commissioners were bound by the county’s existing interpretations of the laws and therefore had to approve the winery.
“This was the most ambivalent I’ve ever been,” Pope said shortly before changing his vote. “I am in support of this project and that is my decision.”
Lester Hardy, an attorney working with Sklar on the project, said after the hearing that Pope changing his vote reflected him keeping an open mind about Yountville Hill, and shows that the hearing process — with each side exchanging arguments and evidence — ultimately works.
“Ultimately they made the right decision,” Hardy said. “It’s a very thoughtful commissioner who makes up their mind in the course of the hearing. What we see here (before the commission) is, in my view, as fine an example of the democratic process as you can see anywhere.”
Tod Mostero, who had helped organize neighborhood opposition to Yountville Hill, said he was disappointed in the decision, and opponents were strongly considering appealing to the Napa County Board of Supervisors. Hardy said he expects one to be filed.
Months of well-publicized controversy preceded Wednesday’s hearing, with neighbors saying the project would make an already busy stretch of Highway 29 more dangerous by adding traffic in and out of the access driveway, and would also undermine land-use rules aimed at protecting the hillsides from this kind of development.
Sklar countered that his project played by the rules — as they’re currently written — and the opponents’ comments were best made to the Board of Supervisors, which is tasked with revising county land-use policies. The Planning Commission can only implement the rules as they stand currently.
The project sought a number of variances and exceptions to county rules because of the steep hillside it proposes to build on. The project site has an existing driveway, which leads to a defunct bed-and-breakfast that will be demolished.
Sklar’s project will ultimately widen the driveway and do extensive grading to build a series of retaining walls, as well as a reception center about halfway up the hill. The reception center connects to a 10,000-square-foot cave that would have barrel storage and a long hallway that would lead to an elevator, which patrons would take up to the winery tasting room and administrative offices.
Production would be housed in a lower, 25,000-square-foot cave, while the two-story, glass-encased tasting room would jut out of the hillside, offering sweeping views of the upper and lower Napa Valley.
Depending on which arguments you believed, the project was either an affront to the very principles the Napa Valley has fought to preserve for decades, or an efficient use of a parcel unsuited for grape-growing yet ideal for a winery. The commissioners heard plenty from both sides Wednesday.
Sklar said extensive landscaping such as trees and shrubs will help camouflage the development into the surrounding hillside vegetation, although those trees will take years to fully mature and mask the steep retaining walls.
Opponents were skeptical that these trees could grow high enough given the amount of sun exposure that side of the hill would receive, and the tough, rocky terrain they’ll be planted on. Jack Chandler, a landscape architect in Napa, called the winery part of a trend of developers trying to construct “ego-shrines.” Sklar countered that professional botanists offered a different opinion.
“I wish these trees more luck than I think they will receive,” said Tony McClimans, who spoke in opposition for the project. “These are the hills that define the Napa Valley as a place that is not yet overrun with urban development.”
Julia Levitan, another opponent, said the project perverted a section of the county’s landmark Winery Definition Ordinance that requires accessory space in a winery —such as the tasting room — be no greater than 40 percent of the production area. That ensures the winery has a strong connection to agricultural production.
Based on the developers’ calculations, Yountville Hill meets that threshold at 36 percent, but Levitan argued the calculation was flawed because it didn’t include outdoor areas such as patios or terraces. Including that space, accessory space would be 63 percent and in flagrant violation of the WDO, she said. Two recent winery projects, B Cellars’ new winery in Oakville and Titus Vineyards and Winery near St. Helena, used those outdoor areas in applying for their use permits.
“According to the WDO, the visitor center is too big,” Levitan said.
But county staff responded that those outdoor, unenclosed areas are not routinely included in calculating accessory-to-production ratios. Planning Director David Morrison said Titus and B Cellars did that voluntarily.
“It was just something that was added and that was moot to the issue at hand,” Morrison said.
Mary Ann Moffitt, who lives near the project off of Highway 29, said she routinely has to wait for traffic to subside before she can turn in and out of her driveway, or else risk accelerating quickly to weave into the traffic flow. Coupled with new winery projects in or near that stretch of Highway 29, she said the county was at risk of creating massive gridlock between St. Helena and Yountville.
“You may call this anecdotal evidence,” Moffitt said. “We call it our lives and what we see everyday.”
County planner Sean Trippi said the project is estimated to add less than one percent to the existing daily traffic load of the highway, although opponents have said the traffic study those estimates are predicated on was outdated and flawed.
Hardy said traffic will worsen in Napa Valley even if the planners rejected Yountville Hill because of the population growth projected in the broader Bay Area, a major source of tourism for the valley. The situation is exacerbated by local governments and nonprofits’ marketing efforts, which attempt to drum up transient-occupancy tax revenue through additional hotel room reservations.
“Traffic is going to increase even if you never approve another project,” Hardy said. “Overall increases in congestion can’t be tied to growth in new projects.”
As grapegrower Volker Eisele put, many of the battles currently playing out before the commission were predicated by the decision to only require a 10-acre minimum lot size for wineries, rather than a 40-acre minimum that was discussed before the WDO was created in 1990.
Morrison also reflected on that requirement, saying it can force developers into pursuing variances and exceptions to the rules when they still have to confront setback requirements. Some parcels will be so squeezed that option is inevitable, he said.
Sklar seized on those comments in saying that his project ultimately abides by the rules. Opponents needed to speak to the Board of Supervisors, which meets in the same room on Tuesdays.
“This is consistent with all the laws that are on the books today,” Sklar said. “They’re in the right room but on the wrong day. They should be speaking in front of the Board of Supervisors.”
Fiddaman concluded that he agreed with Sklar’s analysis that the project met county rules and therefore had to be approved.
“We’re here to implement, to apply existing regulations,” Fiddaman said. “We’re not here to make them. We never make them. It’s up to the Board of Supervisors to make them.”